OUR OPINION: Budget surplus offers 2013 session some opportunities

By NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi’s encouraging rise in revenue collections during the just-completed 2012 budget year doesn’t herald a great economic recovery, but it leaves a positive balance on the books – enough for the Legislature (and the executive branch) to start budget calculations with a little more money wiggle room than anticipated.
Total revenue in 2012 was $4.85 billion, 5.9 percent ahead of 2011, but still short of the record $4.94 billion in 2007-2008, the cycle during which the recession started.
Legislators, buoyed by increased revenue estimates during the 2012 session, committed some of the unexpected revenue, but the 2013 session will have about $108 million more than what was originally anticipated.
Many will groan with the suggestion that at least a major part of the balance go to underfunded education, but the widely ignored fact among those who are not friends of public education, community colleges and universities is that all three are woefully underfunded.
The Mississippi Adequate Education Program is $250 million under what state law says it should be – based on the formula approved by the Legislature.
Universities are struggling to remain competitive with peers in other states as the state’s share of maintaining them steadily declines, and community colleges aren’t anywhere near the funding and salary goals set in policy.
Gaining additional education funding at the beginning of the 2013 legislative session has to be a bipartisan effort, which means Republican education supporters, including public school parents, university parents and community college parents, must speak out forcefully about the dismal lack of will to meet promises made in previous years.
We’re not talking excess and luxuries, just keeping up with the pledge made in previous years – and matching political rhetoric that often is more convenience than commitment, even from some legislators representing strongly public education districts, counties and cities.
Even the miniscule increases in funding for education in 2012 do little to catch up with where schools should be in terms of the state’s commitments.
In addition, mental health services have taken a big hit, impacting thousands of Mississippians dependent on the state for essential, delicate, complex and confidential health care services.
Every sector impacts Northeast Mississippi because our region is, after all, a part of the whole.
The people’s voices directed toward political leadership never has been more important in determining spending priorities.
Taxes are never popular, but much of the state’s spending has enthusiastic constituencies; those voices should be raised and heard.